Black History Spotlight #5: Alice Allison Dunnigan

All this month, we’ve been shining a spotlight on prominent black history makers. From Frederick Douglass to Marsha P. Johnson, we’ve learned a few things about Americans who helped make this country great, and hope you did too. We’re closing out the month with Alice Allison Dunnigan, a black female reporter, whose beat was politics – primarily in the White House. Read on to see what life was like for a female journalist of color back in the day.

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/1/ Teen Prodigy

Alice first bit the journalism bug at age 13, when she started writing for the Owensboro Enterprise, the local paper in her home state of Kentucky. Although the extent of her contribution was only one-sentence news items, the experience left her knowing she wanted to be a reporter.

/2/ History Has Its Eyes On You

AT the time, black kids were only allowed 10 years of education, but Alice Allison decided to go further and attended Kentucky State University, where she completed a teaching course. She used her degree to become a history teacher in the Todd County School System, which was still segregated. While teaching her black kids, she noticed most of them had no idea of the contributions African-Americans had made to the state, so she made it her goal to educate them. Alice Allison then made “Kentucky Fact Sheets”, and gave them to her students as supplements to the required text in class. In 1939, the papers were collected for publication, but due to the political climate, no publisher was willing to print them. But in 1982, Associated Publishers Inc. finally took the papers to press and made the sheets into a publication called The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. Alice Allison was a teacher in Kentucky public schools from 1924 to 1942, but because she wasn’t exactly getting paid the big bucks, she still worked small jobs in the summer, like a housekeeper and washing tombstones in the white cemetery.

/3/ A Full Time Job

But when she ended her teaching tenure in 1942, it was because she took on a call for government workers in Washington, D.C. during World War II. While she worked in her federal government job, she took night classes at Howard University,and by 1946, she was offered a job writing for the Chicago Defender newspaper as a Washington correspondent. The black-owned publication never used “negro” or “black”, but rather used the phrase “The Race” in reference to African-Americans. However, the down side to this was that the editor of the Defender was unsure of her writing abilities strictly because she was a women, she he paid her much less than her male co-workers until she could prove her worth.

/4/ HBIC

In 1947, served as a writer for the Washington bureau of the Associated Negro Press. During her time there, she sought credentials to become a member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries, but it didn’t come without a fight. The government denied her requests, citing the fact she wasn’t writing for a daily newspaper (a requirement for reporters covering the Capitol), but rather a weekly publication. It took six months, but she was finally granted clearance and became the bureau chief of the Associated Negro Press for the next 14 years.

/5/ White House Correspondent Years

In addition to being the first black female member of the Senate and House press galleries, she made history yet again in 1948, when she was named a White House correspondent, and again was the first black female to ever hold that title. In fact, she was only one of three African-Americans, one of two women in the press corps, and the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club.

Of course, Alice Allison’s milestones didn’t come without a price. Segregation was still instituted throughout most of her time in Washington – during President Eisenhower’s eight years in office, he went from not calling on her at all to asking her for her questions beforehand (something no one else had to do). She was barred from entering some venues to cover him, and even had to sit with servants to cover Senator Taft’s funeral. When John F. Kennedy took his place in the Oval Office, he was the exact opposite and welcomed questions from Alice Allison, who was known as a hard-hitting reporter.

/6/ Working With the President

Speaking of JFK, he named her the education consultant on the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961. In 1967, she became an associate editor with the President’s Commission on Youth Opportunity, but left in 1968 when Nixon and his Republican team took over the White House.

/7/ Back to the Books

Following her career in Washington, she decided to tell her story in an autobiography, and penned a book titled A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House, which was published in 1974. A detail not covered in her book – she received more than 50 journalism awards for her groundbreaking work.

Black History Spotlight #4: Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson, trans activist and all-around personality, was vibrant, generous, kind-hearted, hilarious and a wholly singular person. She was also a gay and trans advocate from the 1960s until her death in 1992. With some of the news that has come down this week, today we thought it was appropriate to shine our Black History Spotlight on Marsha P. Johnson, a person who greeted inequity with resilience, resistance, generosity and humor.

A Boy With Dancing Feet

Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels and began wearing dresses at age 5; young Malcolm stopped because of the neighbors’ reactions. Malcolm’s senior yearbook entry read “Willing to help others — a boy with dancing feet.” During the early 1960s, the teen began making the short trip into New York City to see other drag queens. “Malcolm” moved to Greenwich Village, living on the street when necessary, at age 18. By age 22 she had legally changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha used to say that the “P” stood for “pay it no mind,” her response to people who would ask whether she was male or female (at times, Marsha would choose to identify as Malcolm, and as male and would describe herself both as a “drag queen,” a “transvestite” and as gay; Marsha also frequently used female pronouns and those seem to be the ones that her friends and contemporaries use for her, so that is what we will use here).

Serious Drag

Before long, Marsha became a sensation.  Marsha was frequently given leftover flowers by florists at the end of the day, wearing them in elaborate crowns on her head. Asked if she ever “did drag seriously,” Marsha laughed that she didn’t have money to be serious about it. She used trash and thrift items to create fantastic ensembles. Friends agreed: “she wasn’t a well-dressed, coordinated kind of a drag queen.” By all accounts, Marsha was beloved by most. However, she faced some discrimination within the gay for community for her gender presentation. For instance, there was an attempt to exclude trans women and drag queens from the Gay Liberation Parade. Marsha just marched in front of the parade so that it appeared she was leading the whole thing.

Stonewalled

The Stonewall Riots were an uprising against a discriminatory police raid that took place at the Greenwich Village bar The Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. The event served as the catalyst for the Gay Liberation movement that continued throughout the 20th century and into the present day. It is imperative to note that Marsha P. Johnson, a Black, trans person was a hero of the movement. Marsha announced “I got my civil rights” and thew a shotglass – “the shotglass heard ’round the world.” A rebellion began and a movement was born.

In the documentary Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P. Johnson, Marsha’s contemporaries emphasized just how important the Stonewall Riots were. “It was a horrible world before that,” and the changes that we have seen “didn’t just happen this way.” The world as we know it might look very different without that act of resistance at the Stonewall Inn.

 

Saint Marsha

One story involves Marsha sleeping in the flower district under the lilies during her early days in New York. An employee explained why they let her: “she’s holy.”

Numerous stories involve Marsha panhandling on the street, then giving the change she received to somebody who needed it more. Within the community, Marsha’s generosity and warmth led to the moniker Saint Marsha.

Marsha’s message of love wasn’t an act of respectability politics. Rather, she reached out and connected to other people’s humanity so that they could no longer deny hers. She was known for “converting people into fans and friends” simply by being friendly and polite.

Marsha  frequented all kind of churches and noted that “we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Rising STAR

Together with Slyvia Rey Rivera, Marsha founded STAR: Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries. The group reached out to homeless trans youth, the first group to specifically serve the vulnerable homeless trans community, particularly young people who were no longer welcome in their homes. Eventually STAR was able to establish a shelter, and the group also provided food to people living on the streets.

During this time, Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol. This photograph didn’t make Marsha notable; instead, she was already a popular figure in her community. Still, the photo had the effect of making Marsha, in the words of Michael Musto, ” the transgender version of a Campbell’s soup can.”

 

The End

In 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River. The death was ruled a suicide and wasn’t investigated. However, Marsha’s friends reported that she had been harassed by a group of people on the day of her death, and they did not believe that she was suicidal. In 2012, Marsha’s case was reopened. Although there are no leads, this is at least an acknowledgement that we cannot be sure what happened to her.

Black History Spotlight #3: Coretta Scott King

Our Black History Month spotlight series continues today with Coretta Scott King, a prominent activist for women and African-Americans, who just so happened to also be the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. If you’ve always known her name, but not the story behind her impressive life, read on.

/1/ Angel of Music

When Coretta Scott was in high school, she played trumpet and piano, sang in the chorus and was a frequent player in the school musicals. Basically we would’ve been BFFs with her. After graduating as the valedictorian of her class, she went to Antioch College where she studied singing. She eventually transferred out of Antioch after winning a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she focused on building a career in the music industry.

/2/ The Man Who Changed Her Life

While studying at NECM, a friend gave her number to Martin Luther King, Jr., who had asked his pal about any single women on campus. While Coretta originally had no interest, she eventually caved and went out on a date with him. They fell in love and on Valentine’s Day 1953, they announced their engagement in the Atlanta Daily World newspaper, because that’s what folks did in the ’50s. The tied the knot four months later on the lawn of her mother’s house, where Martin’s father officiated the ceremony. What’s interesting about their vows is that Coretta decided to remove the bit about “obeying” her husband, which was not a common thing to do at the time. She will bow down to no man.

After Coretta graduated with a degree in voice and piano, they moved to Montgomery, where Martin became pastor of a local church. Before long, he was chosen to become leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the movement began.

/3/ Combining Her Passions

Although her main focus became civil rights, she used her passion of music to help get their message out. She performed at concerts to with the notion to give audiences “an emotional connection to the messages of social, economic, and spiritual transformation.”

/4/Get In Formation

While she rallied behind her husband for civil rights for blacks, she wasn’t blind to the fact that the movement had become sexist, with women’s interests not being put forth in their (aka her husband’s) agenda. Martin even limited Coretta’s role out on the trail, expecting her to stay at home and take care of their four children.

“Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.”

In January 1968, Coretta took part in a Women Strike for Peace protest in D.C., along with over 5,000 women, and she also co-chaired the Congress of Women conference.

/5/ Equality For All

Continuing to fight for equality for all, Coretta was an early supporter of the gay rights movement. In 1983, she spoke out in D.C. to urge for the amendment of the Civil Rights Act to include gays and lesbians as Protected class.

/6/ Heal the World

Coretta was an advocate for non-violent action to achieve social change, and therefore an advocate for world peace. In 1957, she was on of the co-founders of The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and while Martin was speaking at a major anti-Vietnam War march in 1967, Coretta was doing similar work by speaking out at a rally in San Francisco. In her later years, she even came out in oppposition of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

/7/ What is Legacy?

After Martin was assassinated, she established The King Center in 1968, dedicated to the advancement of the legacy and ideas of her husband.  Their son, Dexter Scott King, is currently the CEO and president of the center.

/8/ Nevertheless, She Persisted

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” (read Coretta’s whole letter here).

Black History Spotlight #2: Frederick Douglass

Last week, we started our Black History Spotlight series with a brief overview on the life of teenage Civil Rights pioneer Claudette Colvin. Her name may not be as much of a household name as 13th Amendment hero Abraham Lincoln, but she’s just as important than any of our presidents. Today we’re shining a light on yet another unknown: Frederick Douglass. Here are 8 facts you need to know about one of the foremost abolitionists in American history.

F. Doug at age 29

F. Doug at age 29

/1/ 20 Years a Slave

Frederick Douglass was born a slave on a plantation in Maryland, and by the age of 7, was separated from his mother and sent to work at another plantation for the Auld family. When he was 12, his master’s wife secretly taught Frederick how to read, despite the fact it was against the law at the time. When his master found out, he forbid his wife to continue teaching him, but that only lit a fire within young Douglass. He taught himself how to read and write from the white kids in his neighborhood as well as the writings by his male co-workers. He used his new talent to teach other slaves how to read, but he also read newspapers and books about slavery, thus igniting his passion to end slavery.

After three failed attempts to escape from his plantation, Douglass finally left Maryland disguised as a free black sailor and ended up in New York City after a grueling 24 hour journey. He then married Anna Murray, a free black woman who helped him escape, and they settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

/2/ Abolish It

Douglass, now 23, quickly became a well-respected leader in the thriving free black community of New Bedford, mainly thanks to his leadership of the abolitionist movement to end slavery. It was then when he began his career as a renowned orator, speaking about his experience as a slave at local meetings, as well as the Hundred Conventions project, a tour throughout the East Coast and Midwest as a part of the American Anti-Slavery Society. However, it was his speeches that put him in danger of being captured by his former slave owners, so he fled across the pond to the U.K., where he continued to speak to people in Ireland and Britain against slavery. He spent two years in Europe telling them horrific slavery stories back in the U.S. In fact, the Brits were so moved by his story, that they raise 700 pounds to pay his master for his official freedom, officially making him a free man back at home.

/3/ Putting Pen To Paper

In 1845, he wrote his life story in an autobiography titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller in the U.S. and even overseas (thanks Irish & Brits), and they were so popular he went on to publish two more versions of his autobiography with new details in each one.

Upon his return to America, he settled in Rochester, New York (OUR HOMETOWN!), where he started The North Star anti-slavery newspaper, focusing on current events concerning abolitionist issues. Because one periodical wasn’t enough, Douglass went all in with the newspaper business, with Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly and New National Era.

“Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The North Star motto

/4/ A Groundbreaking Feminist

Frederick was a staunch supporter of females during the women’s sufferage movement, and when the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY went down in 1948, he was the ONLY African-American to attend. It was at the convention that he spoke in favor of the assembly passing a resolution for women’s suffrage, saying he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also have the right to vote. His speech made such an impact that the resolution was ultimately passed.

/5/ Fought for Black Soldiers’ Right To Fight

By the time the Civil War started, Douglass was one of the most popular black men in the U.S. and he used his visibility to fight for African-Americans to fight in the war, on the basis that the aim of the Civil war was the end slavery. He even met with President Lincoln a few times after the South boasted they would execute or enslave any captured black soldiers. Due to Douglass’ persistence, Lincoln warned the Confederacy that for every Union soldier killed, he would execute a rebel soldier.

Nearly a decade after Lincoln’s death, Douglass spoke about the president’s legacy during the opening of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park. While he called out Lincoln’s hesitance to speak out against slavery from the get-go, he also acknowledged he was ultimately a supporter of the anti-slavery cause.

“Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery….”

As a token of her appreciation, Mary Todd Lincoln gave Douglass the president’s favorite walking stick, which sits in Douglass’ final residence.

/6/ First African-American to be nominated for Vice President

In 1872, he was put on the Equal Rights Party ticket as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate. One problem – he had no idea he was nominated and he didn’t even campaign for it. As we know (or maybe not), they did not take the presidency.

/7/ Look at this photograph

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Frederick Douglass with the most photographed American of the 19th Century, and stealthily made sure of it in an effort to advance his political views. He rarely smiled in his photographs, sending a message that he was not indulging in the racist stereotype of being a happy slave, and often looked into the lens with a stern look.

/8/ Rest In Peace

While there may be alternative facts swirling around out there, Mr. Douglass unfortunately passed away from a heart attack at his home in Washington a mere 122 years ago. He is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery, where people continue to pay their respects to this great man (check out video of a reporter from our local newspaper visiting Douglass last week). RIP.

Black History Spotlight #1: Claudette Colvin

Around here we think Black History needs to be an all-year, all-the-time celebration – but we’re also glad that there’s a month set aside to call special attention to all of the influential, talented, brilliant Black Americans who built this country. That’s why this February we’re shining a spotlight on different historical figures who shaped the world we live in. First up: Claudette Colvin, the teenage Civil Rights pioneer who started a movement by refusing to give up her seat on a bus.

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Claudette Colvin, c. 1955.

Sound familiar? That’s probably because Rosa Parks is on the shortlist of Civil Rights figures we all learned about as children. There’s no denying that Rosa Parks changed our country with her activism and organization efforts as well as her own act of civil disobedience, but until recently Claudette Colvin’s story was sifted down into history.

Claudette Colvin began March 2, 1955 as a straight-A 15-year-old student and ended it a Civil Rights hero. On her way home from school, Claudette’s city bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white passenger. She ignored the driver and looked out the window. When the driver came back to confront her, Claudette stated that it was her constitutional right to sit where she was. Claudette later explained:

I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.

If you need any further reason why Black History Month is necessary, here’s one: Claudette Colvin was inspired to take this stand because that February, her school had observed what was then known as Negro History Week. The stories of the fight against slavery encouraged Claudette to work against the steep inequalities still present in her society.

Young Claudette Colvin was arrested, with police kicking her, knocking away her textbooks and dragging her off the bus. She was ultimately charged with violating segregation laws; Claudette plead not guilty but was sentenced to probation. The NAACP chose not to take Claudette’s case because she became pregnant the year of her arrest, and they feared that bad press and further prejudice would cloud the public’s support of Claudette’s cause. Nine months after Claudette refused to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks made the same statement; a year after Claudette’s arrest, her first son was born.

When it became apparent that an appeal from Rosa Parks’ case would stagnate in the courts, Civil Rights lawyers looked to a different case to address the constitutionality of bus segregation. Claudette Colvin was named as a plaintiff, along with Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanette Reese, in the case that would confirm the illegality of segregation on mass transit. Because Browder v. Gayle addressed a federal question (a civil suit for damages due to a deprivation of rights by a public official, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983) it was heard in district court.

The ultimate question in Browder v. Gayle was whether statutes and ordinances requiring segregation on a common carrier violated the Constitution. The ‘separate but equal’ doctrine had already been weakened by a string of cases regarding interstate transit, as well as college education and public recreation. The court in Browder placed the final nail in the Plessy v. Ferguson coffin, holding that bus segregation statutes violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The lower court’s decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1956.

Claudette Colvin later moved to New York and became a nurse’s aide. She is now retired, and has said that at one time she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Instead, she inspired the case that ended segregation on common carriers – just as she said on the bus on March 2, 1955, it was her constitutional right – and has had a larger impact on the course of constitutional law than most lawyers could ever dream.

I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on. I’m not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation.


Any other facts about Claudette Colvin, the bus boycotts, or the Civil Rights era that you’d like to point out? Suggestions for further Black History Spotlights? Let us know!